My blogging name, The Wife of Bath, has become a kind of secret handshake with English lit nerds. One of my readers commented “I saw your WOB handle and I just had to follow. I am a huge fan of both Chaucer and the bawdy and bodacious Alison”. For you not so word-nerdy sorts, here’s the deal: The Wife of Bath is a character in The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 1300’s. In The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims on the way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral entertain themselves with a story-telling contest. Each pilgrim begins with a prologue, followed by a story. The text is in Middle English, which is mostly understandable to contemporary readers. I recommend reading The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, along with a modern adaption. (The text I quote below is in the original with modernized spelling).
Experience, though none authority,
Were in this world, is right enough for me.
With this audacious declaration, The Wife of Bath begins the prologue of her story in The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath, called Alison by her lady friends, sites her own experience as higher than that of any authority. She’s been married five times, has traveled from England to Spain, France, Germany and the Holy Land. Chaucer paints a delicious picture of Alison, middle-aged, wide-hipped and flamboyantly dressed, ambling on her horse on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. As a fellow middle-aged and large-bottomed traveler, I too claim my own experience over authority. Like the Wife of Bath on her pilgrimage, I’ve learned the supreme importance of the primary source. There is no substitute for the real thing, especially when it comes to art, architecture, music, food and people. Sure, I love to linger over art history books and travel guides, but at the end of the day, I am my own filter. And true, it takes planning, resources, and often downright scrappy persistence. But having the extraordinary opportunity of seeing 16,000 year old cave paintings in person, or listening to the boy’s choir of Leipzig sing Bach’s St. John Passion on Good Friday in the church where Bach was choirmaster, are experiences for which no movie, trip to Disneyland, or Buzzfeed article can replace.
Let them with bread of pured wheat be fed,
And let us wives eat our barley bread.
And yet with barley bread, Mark tell us can,
Our Lord Jesus refreshed many a man.
In such estate as God hath cleped us,
I’ll persevere, I am not precious.
The Wife of Bath is not a fussy traveler. Sure, she tells us, there are the those who eat only the finest bread of pure wheat, but she’s okay with a homely barley loaf. God has made her less than perfect, so she’ll persevere enjoying life in her earthy, lustful fashion. Alison reminds me it okay to travel cheap, take an occasional cold shower, use a squat toilet and sleep on a lumpy mattress. Like her, I am not overly precious. Though I am no adventure traveler, I’ve learned that putting up with a bit of discomfort can reward me with a unique and memorable experience. (And don’t we all know that whole grain bread is healthier than white?)
Unto this day it doth mine hearte boot,
That I have had my world as in my time.
But age, alas! that all will envenime,
Hath me bereft my beauty and my pith.
Let go; farewell; the devil go therewith.
The flour is gon, there is no more to tell,
The bran, as I best may, now must I sell.
But yet to be right merry will I fand.
Ah, this is it, Alison’s triumphant cry, her middle finger to old age and her best travel advice yet: seize the day. It does her heart good to know she’s thrown herself straight into life. The Wife of Bath has taught me not to put off travel, not to make excuses. I understand that travel is a privilege, and that finances, family obligations, and health can often be insurmountable barriers to travel. So many people, though, are creating their own barriers, waiting for perfect circumstances to travel. I despise the phrase “trip of lifetime.” Me–I get lots of trips; trips in winter with constantly cold feet, trips where I eat beans out a can for ten days straight, trips where I wash my clothes in a plastic baggy. Alison and me, we’re not getting any younger, but screw that, if we’re out of flour, we have bran to sell. The important thing is proudly proclaiming “I have had the world as in my time.”
Though technically a fictional character devised by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath is such a force of nature that she exists for me as a real person, a bodacious role model, and most of all, my travel mentor. But why settle for my interpretation? Remember what I wrote about primary sources? That applies to books too–so read the book and let your own experience trump authority. Who knows what great advice Alison has in store for you?
The Husband and Wife of Bath feeling “right merry.”